AcademyHealth Annual Research Meeting: Many Employers Still on the Wellness Sidelines

Jun 27, 2012, 3:45 PM, Posted by

Three entities in Minnesota shared their experience with workplace wellness programs at this week’s AcademyHealth Annual Research Meeting. Employers can play critical roles in improving the health and lifestyles for their employees and their community, but many are still on the learning curve of why it’s important, according to presenters at the session.

Marc Manley, MD, MPH, chief prevention officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) of Minnesota says “workplace wellness needs a business plan, not just a culture.” Manley says to be successful, workplace wellness plans need goals and a decision on who will pay for it. It also needs a long-term commitment—at least three years, says Manley, since most firms can’t afford to introduce every wellness incentive—such as healthier foods, incentives for healthier lifestyles, and company-based programs such as smoking cessation and weight loss—all at once.

Manley adds: "You also need infrastructure, communication with employees, feedback, incentives, goals, a measurement strategy; and a lot of employers just don’t have this in place for wellness."

Examples of things to focus on include the types of food offered throughout the workplace, and what you will do to make the healthy choice the easy choice, such as pricing healthier foods differently than less healthy ones.

Manley, who is also the chief medical officer for Invitation Health & Wellness, a consulting arm of BCBS Minnesota aimed at widely sharing evidence-based practices, says small firms often want to know what they can introduce that’s fully free of financial costs that will help improve the health of their employees. Manley says he does have one suggestion: have CEOs model healthy behaviors, and serve as role models.

Wellness initiatives at BCBS Minnesota, which has 3,500 employees and 2.5 million members, include online and telephone behavior coaching, unlimited office visits to physicians and dieticians, discounts to lifestyle programs such as weight loss classes, provider incentives, paid media campaigns, lobby for strong health policies such as active transportation and funding of local community efforts to promote physical activity and healthy eating. Also needed, said Manley, are data to establish priorities, evidence-based strategies that support goals, measureable goals, and measurement and reporting of progress.

“Firms that have a business plan for a healthier workplaces connected to a culture of health, are more likely to succeed in helping employees get and stay healthy,” says Manley.

Manley cited a 2012 study in the American Journal of Health Promotion that found that workplace wellness programs can produce, on average, reductions in sick leave, health plan costs, and workers’ compensation and disability insurance costs by around 25 percent.

Target’s corporate headquarters are based in Minneapolis, and recently the company started a “wellbeing” initiative as its inaugural project for workplace wellness. While they’ve started some wellness projects, such as reducing the cost of fruit in the cafeteria, well being is what the company is after, to start—including camaraderie and teambuilding efforts. "When they go home we want them feeling good about where they work," says Kara McNulty, senior group manager of medical affairs at Target, who added that the biggest influence from well being on health is on stress-related disease such as coronary artery disease and depression.

McNulty says team members with a higher rate of well being are more likely to stay with the company, volunteer in the community and participate in health surveys. Target’s next steps will be to grow participation in the well being program, study the role of well being “captains” and establish more actionable measurement systems.

At a panel convened by the Alliance for a Healthier Minnesota, a collaborative private and public stakeholders, Target was one of the firms discussing an accreditation program for wellbeing. The program sets standards for workplace wellness programs in three areas: organizational engagement and alignment; population health management and well-being; and outcomes reporting.

Tom Mason, head of the Alliance for a Healthier Minnesota and the final speaker on the session on workplace wellness, said that although business is not often seen as a change agent, real health care reform requires both business and public health. “There has to be coalition building, we have to stick with it for the long haul, and we have to do have forward looking companies."

The Alliance has completed focus groups with small companies on their thinking with regard to workplace wellness, with results to be released in the fall. “The big challenge is small business,” says Mason; "in Minnesota 65 percent of those employed, work for small companies."

Dr. Manley added a twist to his presentation that showed the relative ease of introduction of small changes, especially for a willing audience. He bemoaned the need for conference attendees to spend so much of the meeting sitting, and challenged the sessions attendees to get out of their chairs and stand, and even move their arms and legs a bit, after each speaker—and just about everyone did as he asked, after a careful look around to be sure they wouldn’t be the only ones. “Changing a norm is not so easy,” said Manley. “But it’s possible if you start thinking about what you need to do.”

>>Weigh in: What’s a small change your community has made that has increased, even slightly, physical activity among a group?

>>Bonus Interview: Read a NewPublicHealth Q&A with Tom Mason of the Alliance for a Healthier Minnesota

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.